About a half-hour later, thousands of children wearing neon hats and waving neon wands oohed and aahed as they watched 18 minutes and 52 seconds of electronically launched fireworks.
“The grand finale is the best part,” Dillon McTernan said, alongside his wife, Mandy, and 5-year-old son, Dillon Jr.
While the Fort Gordon Independence Day extravaganza has become a staple in the Augusta area, the 2013 showing was a marvel in itself, as Fourth of July celebrations at military installations around the country have recently become the latest casualty of sequestration.
Annual events at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base and the Army’s Fort Bragg – both in North Carolina – were canceled this year, as well as the celebration at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Ga.
The reason is money – namely the lack of it.
The failure in Washington to follow up a 2011 budget pact with additional spending cuts meant $85 billion across-the-board cuts that began in March. Budgets tightened, the military took a major hit and many federal workers absorbed pay cuts through forced furloughs.
The good news for Fort Gordon is community events, such as the Independence Day celebration, are designed to be self-sustaining, meaning they rely on funds from the post’s Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation – not federal money from the installation’s operating budget.
Income from commercial sponsors, carnival operators, food and beverage sales and other vendors cover almost all of the costs. In 2012, as in most years, Fort Gordon’s festivals generated a small profit.
Officials estimate the cost to put on the events was $223,000 in 2011 and $221,000 last year. Each year reportedly recorded profits of about $42,000 in 2011 and $37,000 in 2012.
“For many families in the surrounding area, the Fourth of July is the one trip they make a year to Fort Gordon,” said James Green, the director of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Fort Gordon. “It’s an opportunity for us to build a sense of belonging in the community and show our appreciation for local support.”
Early morning cloud cover worried fort officials, but Green said commanders knew they were good around 4:30 p.m., when the weather cleared. As insurance, post officials monitored all lightning activity within a 10-mile radius of Fort Gordon using technology provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It was definitely one of the cooler celebrations we’ve had,” Green said.
Despite the weather, officials estimated it drew close to its annual turnout of 20,000 spectators on Barton Field, where more than 60 vendors and carnival attractions set up, and around an extra 10,000 to 15,000 in nearby fields and parking lots.
June Barricklow Simpson, a retired employee of the Eisenhower Army Medical Center, and her cousin, Timothy Smith, used to watch the display from a distance. However, this year they decided to come down on the field to reunite with the post where Simpson met her husband, a deceased Army veteran, in 1960 and get a live view of the Army Signal Corps Band and a closer look at the fireworks.
“It’s a mega show,” Smith said.
The highlight of the night, though, was service members, many of whom walked around for locals to get to know by name.
“We do not get to see civilians on a daily basis,” said Pvt. Joshua Ivory, a soldier in training since April. “It was nice that we all could celebrate together.”